ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A bitter fight has broken out between powerful backers who want to put a large grain terminal on the Mississippi River in south Louisiana and the historic Black community that exists only yards from the fence line. Charges of environmental racism are coming from the descendants of enslaved people who believe the silo complex is an existential threat to their community. NPR's John Burnett reports from Wallace, La.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It's Juneteenth. A couple dozen folks, mostly extended family, have come out to visit under a 3-century-old oak tree. They eat roast beef sandwiches and peach cobbler, drink whiskey and daiquiris and enjoy the laid-back rural life on this lazy bend of the mighty Mississippi.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARTY CHATTER)
BURNETT: But they fear change is coming.
JOY BANNER: My name is Joy Banner and have grown up here my whole life. We're in Wallace, La. We don't want this way of life to be ruined. It's becoming more rare, primarily because of so much industrialization.
BURNETT: Joy Banner and the rest of this predominantly African American town are alarmed at the plans of Greenfield Louisiana, LLC. The company wants to put in grain elevators to store more than 4 million bushels of corn, wheat and soybeans. The grain will float down the Mississippi River in barges from the Midwest and get loaded onto cargo ships here in Wallace that will deliver it around the globe.
Supporters from the governor's office to the local parish council say it will create jobs and expand international trade. But neighbors see a massive industrial complex with one structure as tall as the Statue of Liberty operating 24/7 with truck and train traffic, machinery noise and dust escaping when grain is loaded and unloaded. Banner stands at the edge of her unincorporated village, looking out over a field of sugarcane, the crop her enslaved ancestors cut from dawn to dusk.
BANNER: This property is where the proposed grain elevator site would be set up, right next to us, as you can see. We would be living in the middle of this facility.
BURNETT: Some 200 industrial and petrochemical plants are located along the twisting river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This industrial corridor has been nicknamed Cancer Alley. Study after study has shown that poor Black communities near toxic air pollution suffer greater rates of cancer. People at the Juneteenth picnic say their air is already foul and a giant grain elevator next door is bound to make things worse. Lawrence Alexis is a 93-year-old resident who used to work in a sugar refinery.
LAWRENCE ALEXIS: You got red dust, black dust, white dust - all these plants, they all got dust.
BURNETT: In a thick Creole accent, Alexis says the plants up and down the river already produce red dust, black dust and white dust. He's afraid the grain terminal will create even more dust, and he doesn't think it should be allowed right next to their town.
ALEXIS: And I don't think it should be there, not close like that.
BURNETT: Lawrence Alexis has good reason to worry.
KIMBERLY TERRELL: You know, we tend to think of grain as something that's not toxic, not harmful. But the reality is that the dust that comes from these facilities is not pure grain, right? It's grain dust mixed with bacteria, bird droppings, rat droppings, insect parts, lots of things that could irritate your lungs and also potentially include toxins.
BURNETT: Kimberly Terrell is a research scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, which is representing Wallace residents in their fight to stop the grain terminal.
TERRELL: The other big issue is that when you have dust in the air and you have facilities releasing toxic air pollution, that dust can essentially be a vehicle for toxics to get deep into your lungs and into your bloodstream.
BURNETT: But there are concerns that go beyond grain dust. Among the founders of Wallace were emancipated slaves who toiled on nearby plantations. The attachment of their descendants to this soil is sacred and as deep as the oak roots. Joy Banner and her twin sister Jo run a cafe in Wallace called the Fee-Fo-Lay, named for the mysterious flickering lights in the swamp. They use recipes for tea cakes and pralines handed down from their great-great-grandmother, Mama Joe, who was born into slavery. And they still tell the legend of the Gown Man, said to originate with a slave owner who dressed as a ghostly figure to frighten his slaves into obedience.
BANNER: Like, these stories are an example of the way that we continue the networks that our ancestors sought to maintain. It's sad that we're constantly threatened by being pushed out of something that our ancestors wanted for us.
BURNETT: The proposed Greenfield Louisiana terminal will help, not harm, the community, says CEO Adam Johnson. Johnson says in a statement, the state-of-the-art grain elevators will diversify the tax base and create a hundred jobs. The company says it will significantly reduce environmental impacts by using fully enclosed conveyor systems and installing dust-collection devices. The local elected officials who support the project all declined interviews. State Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain says the Wallace grain terminal fits into a larger project to build modern port facilities deep in the river and make Louisiana more globally competitive.
MIKE STRAIN: It is good for Wallace, La. The ports are the lifeblood of many, you know, different communities. And the Port of South Louisiana provides jobs, local jobs, and a boost to the local economy.
BURNETT: Others believe the proposed Wallace grain terminal is just the latest example of environmental racism.
CRAIG COLTEN: I don't think industry saw a Black community as a viable community. I think they just ignored it. And to me, that smacks of a type of racism.
BURNETT: Craig Colten is professor emeritus of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University. He's written about race, history and heavy industry along the River Road. And he says it's common for petrochemical corporations to buy former plantation property and build plants just across the fence line from freedmen's towns.
COLTEN: There are many of these little linear villages that were a relic of plantations and that were predominantly African American. And oftentimes, these plants are situated adjacent to those or very close to those.
BURNETT: The proposed grain elevator would also be located less than a half mile from the historic Whitney Plantation. It's an acclaimed museum complex dedicated to the telling of the slave experience. Rather than gushing over the Greek revival architecture and the graceful oak alleys, docents at the Whitney explain the brutal labor conditions and the little-known 1811 slave revolt along River Road. Again, Joy Banner, the community activist leading the fight who's also communications director for the Whitney.
BANNER: We have a great opportunity from historic cultural tourism. So there would be dust and grain and noise that would be part of the museum experience. It would be negative.
BURNETT: Finally, the principal behind the grain terminal is San Francisco activist investor Christopher James. He recently made headlines when his investment firm, Engine No. 1, achieved the unthinkable by installing three directors on the board of Exxon Mobil to pressure the company to reduce carbon emissions. Climate activists lauded him as a green David battling the petro Goliath.
Opponents in Wallace see him in a different light. They say the secretive permitting process has up to now shut them out. But when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers Greenfield's application later this year, they plan to speak up loudly and say, don't let the grain terminal destroy this slave descendants' community. John Burnett, NPR News, Wallace, La.
(SOUNDBITE OF LYKKE LI SONG, "MELODIES AND DESIRES")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.